Northern Ireland (NI) faces food supply “hardships” in the coming weeks as new Brexit customs procedures cause GB suppliers to opt out of servicing the region, MPs have been told.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said a lack of information and the short timeframe in getting information from the government had “been a real challenge” for the retail sector.
Speaking during a committee meeting on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, Connolly said: “There were people being trained up on 30 December, for changes that were in place on 1 January.”
The Brexit deal, which was finalised on 24 December, meant NI was expected to apply EU customs rules at its ports from 11pm on 31 December.
He said: “We've already seen that some suppliers, either because they don't understand the new regime or because it's too much hassle, have opted out of servicing the Northern Ireland market.”
Connolly added retailers had stocked up before Christmas for the first week of January, but transport flow over the first weekend of the year was “less than 20% of the usual transport flow”.
He warned: “There are real hardships that are going to come at the middle of this month, and then of course there's the deadlines coming in April and July… We need the EU and the UK to sit down together to talk about how the systems can be simplified and how we can get a long-term workable solution because quite frankly, this isn't it.”
The UK's Border Operating Model, which was announced in July 2020, will see border controls introduced in a phases. The first phase launched on 1 January, the second phase will roll out in April 2021 and the third phase in July 2021.
Seamus Leheny, policy manager for NI at Logistics UK, told MPs on the committee that trucks destined for NI had been arriving at ports in Great Britain (GB) without the correct documentation, delaying their passage across the Irish Sea.
“We’ve had lorries arriving into Belfast, with no documentation at all. When DAERA [NI’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] officials looked at the manifest, the trailer just simply said food,” he said.
“It’s the lack of preparation on the GB side and businesses not knowing what they have to do to continue trading with Northern Ireland.
“We've had everything from SMEs in GB, right up to large blue-chip companies. We've had businesses presented with the same problem where lorries are arriving to collect goods for Northern Ireland and there's been absolutely nothing done with regards to preparation for customs for those loads.”
Meanwhile, Brexit disruption has led Sainsbury’s to stock products from a rival store under a “temporary agreement” for NI.
Several Sainsbury’s stores are stocking Spar-branded product lines to ensure shelves are not empty due to disruption at the border.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said, “A small number of our products are temporarily unavailable for our customers in Northern Ireland while border arrangements are confirmed.
“We were prepared for this and so our customers will find a wide range of alternative products in our stores in the meantime and we are working hard to get back to our full, usual range soon.”
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